Tag Archives: Croatia

Zagreb 2.0

It is the middle of a teaching term. My work as Associate Dean is plentiful. Scholarship season is upon us. Graduate student recruitment is upon us. And at the Faculty we are working on new programming, strategic enrolment planning, and student experiential learning opportunities. Blah diddy blah. It is mid-October and busy!

Nevertheless, I took six days out of the term to attend a conference in Europe. Where, you ask? In Zagreb. Why, you ask? Because it was a Canadian studies conference sponsored by the Central European Association for Canadian Studies, and I like to support the study of Canada by scholars working overseas. But mainly I went because the conference was organized by my dear friend and colleague V. When Arlequino and I were in Zagreb while on sabbatical this past spring, I told V that I could not travel all this way for a conference in mid-October. Nevertheless, I did.

And I am SO. VERY. GLAD. I. DID.

V organized this conference almost single-handedly and she did a brilliant job. I am not the only one who applauded her efforts. The topic was “Beyond the 49th Parallel: Canada and the North.” It attracted scholars from various disciplines (History, Literature, Sociology, Languages, Geology, etc.) and from at least 10 different countries, maybe more. There were Canadians there—quite a few of us—and the papers were generally (and much more than usually) rich and provocative.

Here is how you can tell when a conference is good.

People commit to it. There were about a hundred delegates and three keynote speakers. People came out to sessions and speeches and readings. People stayed at the university and participated. Okay, it was raining, so perhaps the wet weather kept people inside, but usually at a conference in a big, interesting city academics will skip out of sessions to do other things. I have been guilty of that myself—many times. But at this conference the sessions were full, even the early morning and late afternoon/early evening ones. Everyone attended the opening ceremonies. Everyone ALSO attended the closing ceremonies and the conference dinner. People were just there, having a good time. Catching up with old friends, making new ones, continuing conversations that had started in sessions.

The keynote speakers did not disappear either. They attended sessions. They chaired sessions. They talked to young scholars. I was proud of my Canadian colleagues on that score. The only other conference where that routinely happens is at the IABA conferences: life writing scholars are really, really nice people who care about mentoring the next generation. I felt that here too.

Presenters stuck to the 20-minute time limit. Wow! That’s a biggie. People hate it when presenters drone on and take up too much time. Here I heard excellent papers, efficiently delivered, often even talked rather than read. And there was PLENTY of time for discussion.

The food was excellent. I remember many years ago when I was part of a team organizing a conference and we noted that people talk about two things after the fact—did people go over time and how good or bad was the food. We academics care about our stomachs, but it also takes energy to spend a whole day listening, concentrating, talking, thinking. Paying attention. We need fuel. Coffee is crucial too, and it was good.

Oh, and I got to have dinner with the Canadian Ambassador to Croatia too.

Attending conferences in beautiful locations is one of the perks of our jobs as professors. But to be able to travel back to one of my favourite places in the world and to talk seriously with colleagues both Canadian and European was a special treat. More projects will follow from this conference. Research networks spreading across the oceans. Plans for collaboration are afoot.

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A reckoning

Today is the last day of my sabbatical and I’m feeling contemplative. This has been the best sabbatical I have ever experienced. Although I might not have done as much work (read: writing) as I had wanted to, I have done some significant personal and intellectual work. These are the accomplishments, successes and resolutions:

  1. I have determined that although early retirement seems tempting, I am not ready to stop working at the university just yet. There are things I still want to accomplish in both my teaching and my administrative roles. A new course on indigenous literatures. Better funding packages for doctoral students. More traction on non-academic career building for all graduate students in Arts. Writing too, but that is always going on in the background.
  1. Strengthening my network of international colleagues has been a true delight. I am now in meaningful and regular contact with colleagues in Croatia and Poland in particular. Facebook helps! But so do other gizmos and software such as smart phones and WhatsApp. We communicate, build relationships, make lasting friendships as well as work collaboratively on projects. I will be going back to Zagreb in October for a conference organized by V. Awesome. I will stay in the apartment we rented and which felt like home. Excellent.
  1. Including a recent holiday trip to Cuba (where I also have connections with the University of Holguin), I have travelled in eight countries in six months. What a rare pleasure.
  1. Living in Europe for four of the six months has deepened my sense of myself as a European person. It is odd that this is happening after spending most of my life in Canada—45 years! And ironic considering my academic specialization is Canadian literature. But it’s true. My soul responds to Europe. I was born either to pick potatoes in Eastern European fields or to sit in cafes talking. Probably both. I walk the streets of villages, towns and cities and I feel at home. I recognize it; it recognizes me. This morning I woke up and realized that I had been dreaming in German—with the same level of proficiency I actually do have, not as a fluent German speaker. But stil, isn’t that odd? IMG_1675
  1. Books can weigh you down. I sent a box of books I intended to read (those autobiography theory and indigenous literary theory books that had been collecting on my “to read” shelf) from Canada to Vienna. They arrived safely. I sent a box of books from Vienna to Zagreb. They never arrived. Lost in the customs house no doubt. Abandoned and now unread by me. I miss them, but it is also strangely freeing not to be followed by books. Although I am not ready to retire, I am ready to start divesting myself of books.IMG_0892
  1. I have had the privilege of spending whole days reading. Most of you reading this blog will understand how truly splendid and rare that is. Right now I am reading yet another book about WWII and Eastern Europe: Walking Since Daybreak by University of Toronto historian and Lativian-Canadian Modris Eksteins. He embeds his own family story (going back to his great-grandmother) within the larger story of the war and in particular what happened to Latvia. His purpose is larger than that. He argues that “The year 1945 stands at the centre of our century and our meaning.” Get that? “our meaning.” That resonates with me. And I am learning so much from Eksteins’s book because he is a historian and he looks back centuries to the pagan tribes that settled in Eastern Europe. Oh, and did you know that Catherine II, Catherine the Great of Russia, was born in Stettin Pomerania! I didn’t. I have also just read the latest Kate Atkinson novel, A God in Ruins, which is partly about her [fictional] protagonist Teddy’s experience as an RAF bomber pilot during the war, involved in the relentless bombing of Germany. On the ground, cities burn and civilians die. Hamburg. Nuremburg. Bremen. Berlin. The two sides of my family—English and German—are defined in relation to that war, with which I am completely obsessed. IMG_1635
  1. My visit to my mother’s home village (now in Poland and about which I have already written) has prompted more writing. I am writing what I think might become a book one day. Child refugees during 1945 and what they pass on to their own children. I am involved in the Oral History project being conducted by the Waterloo Centre for German Studies and have discovered that many German-Canadians in the Waterloo region are, like my mother, originally from the East. Many of them emigrated and settled here in the years after 1945. Many of them share similar stories of flight and living in deportation camps or under Russian occupation before they could finally leave Germany. I would like to talk to their children.
  1. And finally, my marriage has been strengthened by spending an extended period of time with Arlequino. We were never more than a few hours apart for most of the four months we were in Europe. And we loved it.

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Memories of Croatia

Lady Professor in the Balkans is reliving her three months in Croatia.

V. is here. She is staying with me, and it’s like we’ve never been apart. We pick up the conversation, revive our comfortable rhythms (we spent a lot of time together in Zagreb), joke with each other. We talk about work; we talk about relationships; we talk about “remember when?” I have forgotten most of the Croatian words I had learned: I’m being schooled in them again.

It’s a delight to see how much V. has learned about Canada from being here, and although I gently suggest that she has a romanticized view of Canada, I can’t help but feel proud that her experiences have been so positive (she has been in Calgary for a month, with visits to Banff, Vancouver and Edmonton). Now she’s in KW and seeing how I live. We walk together to the university; she spends the day in the library while I do my usual work stuff. In the evening we eat together and (last night) I introduced her to Coronation Street 🙂 We muddle along easily in each others’ company.

Tomorrow morning we will give a presentation in my department about our combined experience of teaching Canadian literature in Croatia. It will be videotaped and eventually our discussion will appear on the English department blog. Such richness for both of us because of this exchange! And hopefully, eventually, we can bring this richness to undergraduate students at both UW and the University of Zagreb in the form of a student exchange. My next project.

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I blog because I am; I am because I blog

For four months, from February to May 2011, I kept a blog about my experiences as a visiting professor in Zagreb, Croatia. That blog was ladyprofessorinthebalkans.blogspot.com, and you are welcome (indeed encouraged) to look at it. Writing the blog was a wonderful way for me to keep my people back home informed about what I was up to, how things looked and felt, whom I was meeting and what I was discovering. People at home could be “with me” on this journey through the blog. Writing and posting photos was also a great way for me to process my experiences.

Writing that blog was also my first experience of truly public writing–I am, of course, used to the sort of academic writing we deliver at conferences and in classrooms and publish as part of our jobs as professors. But this was different; it was about me. It was also about other people. I had to think about which photos I could post and of whom. What kinds of permissions I need to secure if I wrote about other people. I had to watch what I said, because others were reading me–including the Zagreb students and colleagues I had just met. And when my department chair asked if he could post the link to my blog on our English departmental website all of a sudden my personal blog became part of the the professional “brand” of our department. It was exciting, but I also felt a bit ambivalent about what the blog was actually about.

When the trip ended there didn’t seem to be a good reason to continue ladyprofessorinthebalkans. Indeed, I had intellectual reasons for abandoning it, for I have co-taught a graduate course on “Writing the Self Online” and learned that a blog has to have a purpose, a focus, a theme. Otherwise I would have no readers. And, of course, that blog had a ready-made readership: my friends, colleagues and family, as well as others I met while I was in Croatia and other members of the academic community who found the blog through the English department website. There were also all my Facebook friends who might have clicked on the link when I announced a new post as my status update.

So, what is going to keep you reading? Let’s find out.

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